A Night at the (Virtual) Operaby Tessa DeCarlo
La Rondine and Lucia di Lammermoor: Metropolitan Opera “Live in HD”
Close to 450 movie theaters in the United States now show live broadcasts of performances beamed from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and hundreds of thousands of people are happily paying $20 and more a ticket to attend. The obvious question is: why?
With its emphasis on singing over story, its plus-size superstars, its incomprehensible warbled dialogue (even when it’s in English), opera is an art form that, like cigarettes and whiskey, most people have to learn to love. As a result, it’s long been typecast as the sort of thing only fops like Frasier and Niles Crane would admit to enjoying. When was the last time an American politician confessed to loving Verdi or the Ring cycle?
When opera houses began installing supertitles a quarter-century ago it proved a major step in opera’s democratization. Many old-school opera buffs vigorously protested that the translation text-crawl overhead would distract attention from the performance. That included the Met’s music director, James Levine, who proclaimed his house would use supertitles “over my dead body.”
After a decade or so the Met bowed to popular taste and installed its own variation: individual computers on the back of each of the house’s almost 4,000 seats. These “Met Titles” can be turned off for those who have the opera memorized or prefer to follow along on a libretto in their laps.
Now the Met takes the lead in the latest opera-for-the-people advance. In a brilliant branding move, it’s transmitting live performances—with subtitles—to over 850 movie theaters worldwide. The “Live in HD” initiative, now in its third season, includes 11 of the Met’s current productions, ranging from popular standards like Madama Butterfly to John Adams’s just-premiered Doctor Atomic.
Having recently seen two of these broadcasts, the Met’s new production of Puccini’s neglected La Rondine and the bel canto warhorse Lucia di Lammermoor, I’m left with mixed feelings. The singing was gorgeous, the productions delightful, but you never forget you’re getting it all at second hand.
Much of the thrill of opera, to those of us who find it thrilling, lies in its lavish scale and the awesome demands it makes on performers. Waiting to see if the tenor can hit the high notes in his big aria is a bit like the sick excitement of watching a car race. And whether you’re peering down from the nosebleed section or ensconced in a $375 seat in the parterre, it’s great fun to watch the curtain open on a stageful of costumed choristers, elaborate scenery, the corps de ballet, and perhaps an elephant or two. Neither of these aspects of opera appreciation quite survive the translation to a screen thousands of miles away.
Moreover, even high-definition video isn’t that gorgeous when it’s blown up on a giant movie screen. Nor is the sound as crisp and lively as it is when you’re sitting in the opera house.
Worse, these video broadcasts, like most filmed operas, employ way too many close-ups. The singers in the two productions I saw were good-looking enough to stand up to this scrutiny, but even the most beautiful singing won’t entirely take your mind off the strange throat and tongue movements that often help produce it. More important, grand opera is a spectacle, so filming it as if it were intimate domestic drama cheats us out of seeing the chorus’s entrances and exits, the tenor’s stage business while the soprano pours her heart out, and the full sweep of what’s happening.
This was most egregiously evident during Lucia, when the cameras stepped all over director Mary Zimmerman’s staging. In the first act, Lucia, gorgeously sung by Anna Netrebko, describes an earlier encounter with the ghost of a murdered maiden. It’s a scene typical of opera’s tendency to tell rather than show, but Zimmerman had the clever idea of bringing an actual (non-singing) ghost on stage, where she and Lucia perform a kind of pas de deux that foreshadows Lucia’s own dismal fate.
Unfortunately the Met’s cameras, insistently zooming in on Netrebko, relegated the poor ghost to a corner of the frame, where she looked as if she’d wandered on camera by accident. We were well into the aria before the cameras finally pulled back and the audience could at last identify the white-painted personage who kept popping up behind the soprano’s shoulder. What could have been genuinely spooky became inadvertently comic.
In addition, the Met lards the broadcasts with clunky intermission interviews with the singers in a style somewhere between infomercial and service award. Adding to the embarrassment, the interviews are conducted by other opera stars—Renée Fleming for La Rondine, Natalie Dessay for Lucia—who are clearly more accustomed to singing nonsensical blather than reading it off of index cards.
Nevertheless, I had a great time. After decades of loving the famous soprano aria from La Rondine (believe me, you’d recognize it if you heard it), I was tickled to be able to see a full production of this rarely performed work, even though I was nowhere near New York City. The leads, Angela Gheorghiu and Roberto Alagna, lived up to their reputation for musical and dramatic dazzle, and Samuel Ramey’s past-his-prime vocal wobble turned out to be perfect for his role as an aging libertine.
And once the embarrassing interviews are out of the way, the cameras keep running during the intermissions, treating us to the genuinely fascinating spectacle of the Met’s vast backstage, where scores of burly men rapidly dismantle and put together gigantic pieces of scenery. During the break in Lucia di Lammermoor we watched a mountainous Scottish heath taken apart and a three-story castle erected in its place, all within 20 minutes. Now that’s entertainment!
I’d take Puccini over Donizetti any day, but Lucia, which I saw in an “encore” screening a week and a half after the original live broadcast, was a terrific production, with powerful singing all round. A last-minute substitution put Polish tenor Piotr Beczala into the lead, giving his blazing performance a “star is born” frisson. And in the title role, Netrebko turned the vocal gymnastics of her notoriously difficult part into a dramatic tour de force. In the famous mad scene, when Lucia, who’s just murdered her bridegroom, appears in a white gown soaked in blood, Netrebko combined sensational, poignant singing with an air of genuine derangement.
The audience in my San Francisco movie house was moved to applause even though the people we were clapping for had left the stage many days before. Perhaps we were applauding as much for our own good fortune in being there as for the singers. Listening to this delicious music in a roomful of other people enjoying it as much as you are is a profound pleasure, and that pleasure is real even if the event is virtual.
Moreover, the multiplexes where the “Live in HD” broadcasts are shown offer stadium seating and deeply cushioned chairs vastly more comfortable than the cramped seats of an opera house’s upper reaches. That makes sitting through three or four hours of high art a lot more pleasant. I’d rather see opera live, but sitting cozily in the dark, enjoying a big bag of popcorn and the bottle of wine my friend smuggled into the theater, and listening to some of the world’s loveliest music in a theater filled with fellow fans is an awfully good second best.
Tessa DeCarlo claims to have a few illusions remaining.